The Supreme Court today declined to commute the death penalty of Balwant Singh Rajoana, who was convicted in the 1995 assassination case of then Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh, to life imprisonment. The court said the competent authority may deal with Rajoana's mercy plea.

"What we have decided is that the stand of the Ministry of Home Affairs to defer the decision on the mercy petition of the petitioner is also our decision for the reasons given hereunder... This actually amounts to declining grant the same (remission) for the present. Therefore, we have directed that the competent authority will again as and when they deem necessary will deal with the mercy petition and take a further decision. The writ petition (of Rajoana) is disposed of accordingly," a bench comprising Justice B R Gavai, Justice Vikram Nath, and Justice Sanjay Karol said.

Rajoana has been in jail for the past 26 years. On March 2, the apex court had reserved its verdict on the plea of Rajoana after hearing the submissions of senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the convict, and Additional Solicitor General K M Natraj.

Earlier, the counsel Rohatgi had said that keeping him on death row while sitting over his mercy plea for such a long period violated his fundamental right. His plea for mercy has been pending before the government for over a decade.

On October 11 last year, the apex court had said that a three-judge bench would be set up to hear the plea of Rajoana. Rohatgi had said that his client was in jail for 26 years and has a substantive case based on the judgments of the apex court that his rights under Article 21 of the Constitution (the right to protection of life and personal liberty) have been violated.

On September 28 last year, the apex court had expressed dissatisfaction over the Centre's failure to take a decision on Rajoana's plea for his death penalty to be commuted to life imprisonment.

Rohatgi had said Rajoana has been in jail since January 1996 and his mercy petition was filed in March 2012. He said his client has been on death row since 2007. Rajoana has sought commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment on grounds of his long incarceration.

The apex court had asked the Centre on May 2 last year to decide within two months on the commutation plea filed on behalf of Rajoana. It had also questioned the Centre over the delay in sending Rajoana's mercy petition to the President.

It had asked the government to apprise it as to when the authorities concerned would send the proposal to the President under Article 72 of the Constitution which deals with the powers of the President to grant pardon, suspend, remit or commute sentences in certain cases.

Rajoana, a former Punjab Police constable, was convicted for his involvement in an explosion outside the Punjab civil secretariat that killed Beant Singh and 16 others on August 31, 1995. A special court sentenced him to death in July 2007.

With PTI Inputs